How the fashion industry is paving the way for a sustainable future. By: CLARE PRESS

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We’re at the dawn of a new era of textile innovation, writes Clare Press. As designers and scientists are coming together to conjure up materials that are kinder to Mother Earth, what does this mean for the wardrobe of the future?

“It’s amazing where you find waste,” says Edwina Ehrman. “Even the simplest and seemingly inherently sustainable processes, like silk production; I was surprised about that.” We are having this conversation in her office at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where the exhibition she’s curated, Fashioned from Nature, is showing.

It includes the work of Reiko Sudo, a Japanese designer who uses the rougher outer layer of the silkworm’s cocoon, which is known as kibiso and is usually discarded. Cloth woven from it is coarser than conventional silk, a feature Sudo plays up in a textured, earth-toned coat and skirt that makes a virtue of it.

Others are designing out waste from the equation entirely, as with Nike’s Flyknit sneaker: its upper woven as a single piece from recycled PET, which means no fabric off-cuts. German artist Diana Scherer is training plant roots to grow in geometric formations to create a pre-shaped material. It’s a way off being commercially applicable, but it’s certainly intriguing. It reminds me of Parsons alumnus Jacob Olmedo’s 2017 graduate collection that literally sprouted trims – he grew wheatgrass on a beeswax-treated base-cloth to create garment-garden hybrids.

The first part of Fashioned from Nature looks at how we’ve exploited nature for our adornment since 1600. The second presents responses and solutions from the likes of Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Raeburn. Also featured is Emma Watson’s 2016 MetGala look, made from recycled plastic bottles by the team at Calvin Klein, in collaboration with Eco-Age. The clothes in the exhibition pose questions about where we stand in relation to nature, what we can learn from past mistakes, and how we might navigate our way through the Anthropocene without entirely unmooring ourselves from our origins – because humans, lest we forget, are fashioned from nature, too.

The broader story is around how we source, produce and use fashion materials. And it couldn’t be timelier as fibre scientists, brands and designers rush to create new fabrics and processes that deliver on style, while being gentler on the environment. What a tragedy it would be if certain flowers and bees were seen only in the Gucci garden or on a Dries Van Noten print. You think I’m exaggerating perhaps. Not so. Today, the industry’s carbon footprint is about equivalent to that of the aviation and maritime industries combined. Global warming is accelerating species loss. The UN warns that if we don’t change our ways we may have only about 60 years’ worth of productive topsoil left, while demand for fresh water could outstrip supply by 2030.

Professor Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London, reminds us that resources aren’t infinite. “The fundamental problem is that we’ve become disconnected [from the origins of the things we consume]; we don’t pick something up and automatically understand its value. But we do still have the chance to be able to do that.” She says that designers can be a catalyst for change. “Material choices have enormous impacts on sustainability.”

Kit Willow resolved to make that her focus when she launched KitX in 2015. She has designed with Italian elastane blended with recycled nylon content, zippers made from recycled materials and accessories made from used Cambodian bullet casings. Now she’s fallen for hemp. “I see it as very modern,” says Willow , “because it grows fast without pesticides. It’s a great alternative to cotton.”

Cotton is one of those things people presume is a no-brainer eco option since it’s a natural fibre, but a conventionally grown crop accounts for one quarter of the world’s pesticide use. It’s also incredibly thirsty, both at the field and processing stages. Up to 2,700 litres of water can be squandered on a single cotton T-shirt. 

Denim is another notorious water guzzler. “We see that at several stages, from growing cotton fibre, through the indigo dyeing process to washing your jeans at home,” says Rebecca Van Amber, a fibre scientist at the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University. She’s part of the team behind the ‘denim-dyed denim’ process, which was shortlisted for H&M’s 2017 Global Change Award. They’ve figured out a way to grind down unwanted jeans and denim offcuts into a fine powder that retains its colour, and can used a pigment in digital printers. “Powder we can produce from a single pair of old jeans can be used to colour 10 new ones. Essentially, we’re upcycling waste into a resource.”

The creators of Refibra might say the same. A joint venture between Austrian viscose producers Lenzing and the Spanish textile company Tejidos Royo, it’s a blend of recycled cotton scraps and wood pulp from FSC Certified sources. Country Road is the first Australian brand use it. “As an industry, we need to start rethinking the way we use resources,” says Lucy King, acting sustainability manager for the Country Road Group. “Refibra is exciting because it performs beautifully. I think there’s previously been a of bit scepticism that recycled means lower quality, and, in some cases, that’s true, but this is a game-changer.”

We’re gobbling up virgin resources like there’s no tomorrow. Global garment production doubled from 50 billion to 100 billion units per annum between 2010 and 2015. During the same period, viscose production grew by 35 per cent. Lenzing’s fibres are produced in a closed loop system that recycles the solvents used to break down the fibre, which is obtained from FSC-certified sources. But not all cellulose fabrics are produced so responsibly.

At the Copenhagen Fashion summit in May, Stella McCartney noted “the fashion industry cuts down around 150 million trees a year for viscose [production].” The Stella McCartney and Country Road brands have joined the Canopy initiative, which aims to protect precious forests. According to Canopy: “Part of the answer lies in ‘mining’ the massive untapped fibre resources such as used clothing, agricultural residues and other non-wood options.”

McCartney has been using ‘spider silk’. Developed by Bolt Threads, it mimics the proteins produced by spider’s webs and is produced by putting genes into yeast. Fascinating. Orange Fiber is another delightful alternative. Adriana Santonocito was inspired to create it while she was studying fashion in Milan and noticed a news story about the depressed Sicilian orange market. “Prices had come down and oranges were being left on the trees,” explains her business partner Enrica Arena. “She thought: ‘I wish I could do something about this.’ Cellulose is a very common fibre; could she make this from the oranges?” She could!

“After we spoke with the people who harvest the oranges for juicing, we discovered that the big problem is actually the peels and how to dispose of them. We now work with waste citrus peels.” Last year, Salvatore Ferragamo became the duo’s first fashion client.

Another buzzy eco fabric is Piñatex, an animal-friendly leather alternative derived from pineapple leaves. Livia Firth wore a metallic silver Piñatex dress by Italian designer Laura Strambi to the 2017 Met Gala; Dutch designer Liselore Frowijn made it her spring/summer ’18 hero; and Arizona Muse showcased it at her Sustainable Angle event at London Fashion week in February.

“Today we procure cellulose from trees and plants,” says Alfie Germano, CEO of an exciting Perth-based fibre start-up, Nanollose. “But we don’t have to do that. Our discovery involves using microbial cellulose from bacteria.” The company’s agricultural scientist founder Gary Cass hit on the idea when working with wine. He called these early attempts Fermented Fashion.

Lab-grown fashion is still in its early stages. I remember reading about how Suzanne Lee’s early attempts weren’t weatherproof – she once got caught in the rain in one of her BioCouture jackets and it literally dissolved on her body. Today, her Biofabricate company holds biotech summits and works successfully with bacteria, yeast, algae and mammalian cells to “cultivate consumer goods”.

While there’s only so many ways you can cut a pair of pants, in 2018 the possibilities for what you might cut them from – now, or in future – seem endless. Who knows what innovations lie around the corner?

“Digital printing is a very hot area,” says Van Amber. “Think highly individualised garments available for mass customisation. It would be very efficient, because you’re printing on demand, putting colour exactly where you want it. In a sci-fi future, who knows? Imagine a store where everything is white: you pick out your styles, and have them printed with whatever colour or pattern you like.”

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia's August 2018 issue.

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